If the US were a school

Friday, December 16, 2016

If the US were a school, what would its students be like? Assuming it served one hundred kids, this is what you would see.

  • 26 students are immigrant (born or have a parent born outside the US)
  • 19 students have a disability
  • 16 students are Hispanic or Latino (38 in California)
  • 14 students live below the federal poverty line
  • 12 students are African American
  • 10 students classify themselves as having a severe disability
  • 4 students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
  • 1 student controls 40% of the wealth of the entire student body.

Diversity at this level can go in two directions. It has the potential to drive creativity and positive change and prepare its students to be world citizens. The other direction is a descent into separation, lack of trust and basic compassion between the various groups.

As this year comes to a close, School USA seems headed in the second direction. This is not a happy place. Students cluster at separate tables in the school cafeteria with those of the same color, background or views. The faculty and staff are deeply divided through their strongly held political beliefs. Most teachers prefer to eat lunch alone in their classrooms. Few are willing to share their lesson plans or even show each other basic respect. A vocal minority of parents are threatening to transfer their students to School Canada on the other side of town.

If No Bully was invited to this campus, what would we do? Bullying and harassment have become everyday occurrences at School USA, making this an unsafe and unwelcoming environment. Some students are known to bring knives or guns with them to school and when asked they explain that this helps them feel secure. The administrators are under pressure to do something and are promising more security guards and tougher student discipline. The scenario that we projected for School USA is not so dissimilar to many of the schools where No Bully has been asked to partner. Our starting point for initiating an end to the bullying and violence is this: the creation of a new social vision for how everyone at the school - students, parents, teachers and administration - treats each other.

Change only comes with vision. Before the civil rights movement, it seemed to many impossible to shift the status quo. It took men and women with the courage to dream the impossible before people were motivated to take the risk to take action. Martin Luther King had to voice the dream speech before real change could happen. It was the same with the ending of Apartheid and the collapse of the dictatorial regimes of Eastern Europe. The incredible has happened in our lifetimes through men and women having a vision of a better world.

Typically someone on faculty responds to the suggestion of a vision statement by saying that the school already has one. They point to a faded a mission statement on the wall, the equivalent of School USA's "We the People" and ask if this is enough. And It would be, if its words truly guide and inspire the daily interactions, if they serve as the rationale behind teacher interventions with students and if they frame teacher conferences with parents. However a school's mission statement is more often an unmemorable collection of clichés about the school being committed to the academic excellence and social and emotional development of its students.

If the US were a school, No Bully would encourage the leadership to take the burning question "How shall we treat each other" to neighborhood gatherings across the campus. Leaders would meet with groups of parents, faculty and staff, and then individual classrooms of students. They would lead them through a visioning process for what in their deepest hearts they really want. "Suppose that tonight miracle occurs so that while you are sleeping the bullying and harassment that bring us to this meeting today are solved. Imagine that when you arrive here tomorrow morning this school is transformed. Students and teacher are treating each other differently. You drop by the faculty room at lunchtime. That is different. Teachers and staff are relating in the way that you have always longed for. Parents too are treating each other differently..."

School USA needs a unifying social vision and it needs the healing that comes from the process of asking each person what that vision is. For a vision to be truly unifying it cannot be brought down from the mountain by Moses and announced. It has to come from the people, from small gatherings where the diverse groups that make up this community feel safe enough to say how they want everyone to be treated. If the lessons learned from No Bully schools are anything to go by, something remarkable happens when schools create the conditions where people feel safe to express what they most long for. The answers that we hear are not about force and division. The most common responses are a longing for smiles on the faces of students, for an assumption of goodwill between adults, that when a person falls another reaches down and helps them up.

For any school a new social vision takes committed leadership and daily implementation. Some of the changes can be painful - staff that stand in the way of the new vision may need to move on. You need to celebrate and promote the short term wins - the faculty dinner put on by parents that everyone attended, that we had only five suspensions this first year, that enrollment is up. The new vision is similar to the North Star. You can see it wherever you are. You may never quite get there but it sets a clear direction for where the school is headed.

No Bully's holiday wish for every school is that you find and make great progress towards your North Star. And especial wishes for School USA.